It's Not the Technology, Stupid

While I was learning about the customer service and support industries last fall, I attended many seminars and learned from many people with varied backgrounds. I was impressed with the following advice, which I feel is based in the desire to utilize technology to its best advantage and complement good customer relationship management practices.

One of the keys to good customer relationship management is responding promptly to customer communiques, and finding a way to prioritize them is the first step. Debbie Moberly, director of customer operations for iGo, supports a unique view of the appropriate response time for e-mails. While most companies in the industry are aiming for a response time of 48 hours, iGo uses technology that blends all the contacts together in the order received and uses skills-based routing to distribute them to agents, based on agent skill. The agents then respond to items in the order received; thus e-mail and fax responses are ranked the same as phone calls. If an agent's individual queue has two phone calls, an e-mail, a third call, then a fax, that's exactly the order in which they'd be answered- -phone, phone, e-mail, phone, fax- -not phone, phone, phone, then e-mail and fax if no other calls had come through in the meantime.

Part of treating your customers with respect involves knowing them, and understanding cultural differences can prevent costly missteps. A U.S. version of a BellSouth commercial shows a young child calling a grandparent. While that may elicit warm feelings in our market, says Helen Prieto, vice president of customer relations for BellSouth International, in Latin America the same commercial is a bust. Why? Because Latin Americans usually live together in an extended families structure, so children grow up with their grandparents and a telephone call isn't a special event.

Using automation to acknowledge customer contact is a smart CRM practice. If a customer knows that his order was received or that his question will be answered, he can stop worrying about whether his transmission got through and look forward to the ultimate result (which should also be dealt with in a timely manner). An automated message response that acknowledges receipt of e-mail from the customer and promises a quick resolution of the original e-mail's content is all that is necessary. Greg Gretsch at Kana Communications says that e-bay's 250 reps handle 10,000 e-mails a day with an average response rate of 10 minutes. If that's possible, shouldn't it be easy to put a customer's mind at ease that he won't be lost in the shuffle?

Have your agents make their conversations with customers personal right away. The simplest way to do this when they respond to a customer is to tell her their own name. Then they would proceed by referring to her query or purchase so she realizes that they do indeed know something about her. It's really not too difficult to make the effort to say or type something like, "Hi, I'm Mary. I see that you're buying our model X super racing bike. Do you have any questions about this bike that I can help you with, Joan?"

Provide a route to real-time assistance Although most people in the customer service industry readily acknowledge that Web sites should list the 800 number to their customer interaction center, many sites still haven't added this basic information. Or they do on an obscure page that the customer has to hunt for. Make it a no-brainer for the customer. Also, realize that techno-savvy customers might want to stay on the Web but still have trouble finding what they need, particularly if they're new to the site. Robert Baker, vice president of technology and partnerships for TeleSales, suggests adding this to a site when a new customer logs on: "Welcome to the _______ site. Would you like a live agent to help you walk through the site?"

Make sure your agents have top-notch communication skills. The most important skill an agent can have when trying to help someone is the ability to listen. If the subtleties of a conversation are missed, the customer's level of frustration only increases. An agent must listen to know where to send a customer based on the request, says Glenn Hackemer, vice president of InfoNow. "If a customer wants a high-end product and you refer them to a place that carries only your low-end product, you're practically forcing the customer to buy from your competitor."

Provide basic customer service training along with technology training. With the advent of so much new technology, it's too easy to spend the entire training period focusing on how the technology works, and not enough time on how to work well with the technology and provide good ol' customer service. Make sure that the training is done in a specified training period and not when agents are monitored on calls for performance ratings. Agents won't feel free to try to learn to master new things if they are afraid of being seen failing. The learning process requires a certain amount of practice and experimentation before ski;lls are actually acquired. There's a big difference between training and monitoring, but many managers don't differentiate between the two as much as they should.

Don't sell your customers short. If you're going to become a fully integrated customer interaction center, spend the money on the applications that will best serve your customers and link data collection between the various company departments. Then train your agents to use the systems to their maximum benefit. Robert Van Doren, president of Vanguard Communications Corp., says that "you have to be able to identify who's calling and have data on them in order to best serve them. Some companies spend money on technology that identifies callers and their questions but have no other data on the caller."

Lest this advice makes the status quo sound appealing, consider the following quote by Gary Hamel and Jeff Sampler, E-Corporation, from the December 1998 issue of Fortune: "You know the Internet is going to be important, but if you don't have a deep, visceral sense of how radically it's going to change today's industrial order, you're going to lose. And if you don't understand the advantages of starting early and learning fast, you're still going to lose."

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